'Hey, Google! Let Me Talk to My Departed Father.'

Today, a new generation of companies are hawking some approximation of virtual immortality - the opportunity to preserve one's legacy online forever.

'Hey, Google! Let Me Talk to My Departed Father.'

Photo Credit: Photo for The Washington Post by Brinson+Banks

Andrew Kaplan is creating a virtual version of himself to allow his family to connect with "him"

  • Andrew Kaplan has been a war reporter, army man, and author
  • He wants his loved ones to "interact" with him even when he's not alive
  • He may be remembered as one of the world's first "digital humans"

When Andrew Kaplan reminisces, his engrossing tales leave the impression that he's managed to pack multiple lives into a single existence: globe-trotting war correspondent in his 20s, member of the Israeli army who fought in the Six-Day War, successful entrepreneur and, later, author of numerous spy novels and Hollywood scripts.

Now - as the silver-haired 78-year-old unwinds with his wife of 39 years in a suburban oasis outside Palm Springs, California - he has realised he would like his loved ones to have access to those stories, even when he's no longer alive to share them. Kaplan has agreed to become "AndyBot," a virtual person who will be immortalised in the cloud for hundreds, perhaps thousands, of years.

If all goes according to plan, future generations will be able to "interact" with him using mobile devices or voice computing platforms such as Amazon's Alexa, asking him questions, eliciting stories and drawing upon a lifetime's worth of advice long after his physical body is gone.

Someday, Kaplan - who playfully refers to himself as a "guinea pig" - may be remembered as one of the world's first "digital humans."

"Being a pioneer at my age is kind of unexpected," he said, "but I figured, why the hell not?"

For decades, Silicon Valley futurists have sought to unchain humanity from the corporeal life cycle, viewing death as yet another transformational problem in need of a "life-altering" solution. What began with the cryonics movement, in which bodies are frozen for future resuscitation, has intensified amid the rise of digital culture. Today, a new generation of companies is hawking some approximation of virtual immortality - the opportunity to preserve one's legacy online forever.

On its website, Eternime claims that more than 44,000 people have already signed up to partake in its "big hairy audacious goal" - turning the "memories, ideas, creations and stories of billions of people" into intelligent avatars that look like them and live on indefinitely. Nectome, a research company specialising in memory preservation, hopes its high-tech brain-embalming process will someday allow our minds to be reanimated as a computerised simulation.

HereAfter, an allusion to the future as well as the eternal, is the startup that Kaplan has embraced, eager to become one of the world's first virtual residents, partly because he considers the effort a way to extend intimate family bonds over multiple generations. The company's motto - "Never lose someone you love" - reflects Kaplan's reasons for signing up.

"My parents have been gone for decades, and I still catch myself thinking, 'Gee, I would really like to ask my mom or dad for some advice or just to get some comfort,' " he said. "I don't think the urge ever goes away."

"I have a son in his 30s, and I'm hoping this will be of some value to him and his children someday," he added.

The rituals surrounding death may be as diverse as the cultures they spring from, but for decades now, many of us have followed a similar script after loved ones depart: We pore over old family photo albums, watch grainy home movies, plaster their faces on T-shirts - or even memorialise their Facebook page, preserving their digital quintessence online.

But futurists say that script may be on the verge of a rewrite. If technology succeeds in creating emotionally intelligent digital humans, experts say, it may forever change the way living people cooperate with computers and experience loss. "AndyBot" may become one of the world's first meaningful examples, raising complex philosophical questions about the nature of immortality and the purpose of existence itself.

HereAfter was co-founded by Sonia Talati, who calls herself a personal legacy consultant, and James Vlahos, a California journalist and conversational-AI designer who is best known for creating a software program called the Dadbot. Brought to life after Vlahos learned that his father was dying of cancer, the Dadbot allows him to exchange text and audio messages with a computerised avatar of his late father, conversing about his life as well as hearing songs, small talk and jokes.

Once the Dadbot became widely known, Vlahos received so many requests to create memorialising bots for other people that he decided an untapped market for making virtual people was primed for the mainstream.

"It took my mom two years to remove the answering-machine message with my dad's voice from their home phone," Vlahos said. "She didn't want to extinguish his voice, and that's something I've heard from other people. But it's almost comical that we're still relying on such a primitive method to hear the voices of our loved ones after they're gone."

Instead of merely hearing a recording, Vlahos is building a more sophisticated and user-friendly virtual model that is being designed to encourage interaction. It will probably begin with an app that captures someone's oral history through prompted questions. After your grandmother has answered a litany of questions about her childhood, marriage and significant life events, for example, her voice will be converted into an audio bot that will be accessible through a smartphone or virtual assistant.

Because these devices increasingly function like communal computers in hundreds of millions of kitchens and living rooms, and their usage rates are rising, Vlahos believes they lend themselves to the sort of casual interaction with a deceased relative that many people crave.

Like Netflix or Blue Apron, the company will use a subscription model, one that allows users to interact with a relative's bot for a monthly fee. With proper consent, nonrelatives can also purchase a subscription to a bot. Vlahos said he considers the service an "interactive memoir" and expects it will be especially appealing to customers between the ages of 30 and 50 who want to preserve their parents' history - and essence - before it's too late. The company is developing virtual profiles for customers and expects to unveil its public app over the next year.

"Audio recordings tend to languish on your hard drive," Vlahos said, "and when in your daily life do you really have time to sit down and watch eight hours of video recordings from Christmas of '83?

"Now imagine being able to stand in the kitchen and call out to your deceased mother and have her answer right back," he said. "There's just something about being able to hear our loved ones' voices."

Edward Saatchi, the chief executive of Fable, a company in the process of creating virtual beings, says interacting with digital humans is not only an inevitability but also the next leap forward in how humans interact with technology.

"Imagine a future in which Alexa or Siri is a character with a face and a life and a voice that allows you to interact with them one on one," Saatchi said, arguing that virtual beings will eventually replace Android and iOS. "You'll be able to play games, order food, spend time or learn a language with a virtual being - or do anything else you might normally do with a friend."

Yet, to perfect virtual beings, companies such as Eternime and HereAfter will have to begin chipping away at a problem that has confounded computer scientists for decades - enabling "multi-turn conversations" between humans and machines. Unlike ordering a pizza - simple, short and guided by a specific objective - a multi-turn conversation is free-flowing and spontaneous, drifting among unrelated topics and using the nearly infinite variety of natural language the way conversations between people often do.

Vlahos says that the more fluidly his product communicates with users, the more it absorbs the tonality and ticks of the person it is channelling, the more authentic intimacy it conveys.

At the same time, knowing that computers are years, if not decades, away from handling back-and-forth conversations as well as people do, he aims for the more realistic short-term goal of enabling legacy bots to share stories about a person's life on command.

David Kessler, author of the upcoming book "Finding Meaning: The Sixth Stage of Grief," said intimacy could benefit some people grieving the loss of a loved one but might pose a serious problem for others.

With grieving clients, Kessler said, the goal is for them to remember the departed with more love than pain. The goal isn't necessarily for them to relinquish their grief but to integrate their suffering into their lives in a healthy way. Could a dead relative, conversing through a Google Home, aid in that goal?

"I think so," he said. "Grief is as individual as our fingerprint. There will be some people who find this tool comforting and some people who would never use it, because it doesn't feel like their loved one to them."

His only concern - making sure vulnerable people understand that they're dealing with "an artificial reminder of Dad, not the continuation of the actual relationship with your father."

As he enters his autumnal years on the golf courses of Southern California, reflecting on a life fully lived, Kaplan - the former globe-trotting journalist turned robot prototype - said he isn't seeking immortality. However, he does see another benefit to becoming a virtual person, one informed by his many years as a purveyor of compelling fiction.

"In the end, every story is about trying to help us find out who we are and where we came from, and this is no different," he said. "This is about history for me, a kind of limited immortality that creates an intimate personal experience for my future relatives who want to know where they came from."

© The Washington Post 2019


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